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Digital Games: evaluating their potential for training business processes

Joanne Turbett © 2009 UpArrow Consulting


Some business problems require out of the box thinking to solve them. To understand what is required for out of the box thinking we need to understand what the box is. The box is the current business paradigm. It's the construct we have in our minds of how things should work. To think out of the box we need to find ways to break the paradigm. One way to do this is to investigate what works in another industry and evaluate whether those industry's concepts can provide a solution to the problem. This article evaluates the potential for digital games to change employee's attitudes and behaviours in following business processes.

The Problem

One problem that a number of organisations face is motivating employees to follow business processes. Ideally business processes align with best practice and introduce efficiencies in the organisation that save time and money. However, this concept is not often understood by employees. Even though employees are trained in the business processes they don't follow them and take short cuts. The impact on corporate reputation is significant. One particular organisation has a reputation for being a bad payer because they consistently pay their vendors outside of contractual payment terms. This is due to employees not following the relevant business process and consequently the process to pay vendors takes longer.

In developing a solution it is useful to consider the current training issue. When implementing training for ERP systems both the business processes and the ERP transactions that support the business process are trained. A simulated environment is used to train the ERP transactions but a simulated environment is not used to train the business process. Business processes are trained from conceptual flow diagrams in a lecture format. With reference to the Learning Pyramid, retention is only 5% when a lecture format is used. (National Training Laboratories in Brothers 2007). What if an environment could be created that simulates the business process?

The Solution

Digital games may provide the simulated business process environment. Digital Games Based Learning (DGBL) is the marriage of educational content and computer games (Prensky 2001, p 145) and is a subset of the serious games genre. One game that applies the concepts of the game industry to education and training is a Lean Manufacturing game that was demonstrated at the 2009 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. The game's aim is to train the 100,000 strong work force in business critical lean manufacturing concepts. One particular lean manufacturing concept in the game relates to factory layout. During the game employees move the various factory areas around to produce a particular factory layout. The game then simulates the manufacturing process to evaluate whether the factory layout enables a car to be manufactured in the required time to fill a customer order. The goal of the game is to achieve the optimum factory layout in the least amount of time.

Evaluating the Solution

One way to evaluate the potential for digital games to change attitudes and behaviours is to consider what games provide and how this is achieved through game design. The four things that games provide are challenge, cooperation, engagement and the development of problem solving strategies (Gros 2007).


Everyone who has played a computer game knows that they are challenging. There is a time constraint in the game and the level of difficulty increases as the player moves from one level to the next. These are familiar concepts when applied to training since there is a time constraint and the subject matter is chunked. The level of difficulty increases as each chunk builds on the last one.

In game design the term scaffolding is used. Game designers scaffold the difficulty level in the game to prevent frustration and boredom (Gros 2007). The concept of scaffolding could be applied to a simulated business process game. The business scenarios within the business process could increase in difficulty as the employee progresses from one level to the next.

Additional challenges are often seen throughout games. The game design of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) includes quests. A MMORPG is where a large number of players interact with one another within a virtual game world (Wikipedia 2009). A quest is a request for assistance and takes on many forms including a goodwill quest. In the goodwill quest a higher-level player helps a lower-level player (Dickey 2007). The intention of this type of quest is to promote mentoring. A higher-level player mentors a lower-level player in the rules of the game and in the use of the keyboard and mouse. Once the quest is completed the player is rewarded.

A simulated business process game could include the goodwill quest design element to improve retention, reinforce culture and identify mentors. With reference to the Learning Pyramid, teaching others equates to an average retention of 90% (National Training Laboratories in Brothers 2007). This is significant compared to the 5% retention that lectures provide. The types of quests choosen in a simulated business process game could be those that support an organisation's culture. If helping others is a cultural norm for an organisation then the goodwill quest game design element reinforces the organisation's culture. The game could also identify those employees who have a disposition for helping others. These employees could then be invited to become business process experts or mentors back in the work place.


Cooperation is also seen in digital games. In addition to goodwill quests MMORPG's also have collaborative quests as a design element. Collaborative quests are quests that require the assistance from other players (Dickey 2007). The intention of this type of quest is for a player to assemble a team of players who have different skills and attibutes to solve a particular problem (Dickey 2007). During the quest communication occurs using a chat tool (Dickey 2007). According to Dickey (2007) collaborative quests foster a sense of community and players learn how to combine unique differences between players to solve problems.

Collaborative quests would be a useful game design element for a simulated business process game. Since separation of duties doesn't allow employees to perform all the steps required in the business process employees would need to assemble a team of people with different roles to complete the steps in the business process. The sense of community could potentially be transferred to the work place so all people and departments in the business process could be viewed as a community. This could potentially change an "us and them" cultural attitude between departments in an organisation if one exists.


Digital games can be addictive. Malone and Lepper (1987 in Dickey 2007) state that challenge, achievement, collaboration, choice and control foster intrinsic motivation and this is what keeps players engaged in the game. In considering choice and control, players have a choice with their character design and whether they will accept a quest of not (Dickey 2007). For example they can choose their character's strength, speed, intelligence, physical appearance, weapons. Players become attached to their character (Dickey 2007). A player's sense of control in the game is provided with the quests they choose from and the strategies employed to complete them (Dickey 2007). The quests that players complete also develop their character (Dickey 2007).

These design elements could be applied to a simulated business process game. Employees could choose the role they want to play in the business process. As a consequence they can experience how it feels when they can't complete a quest, that relates to a KPI, in a given time frame because someone hasn't followed the business process. Additionally, a choice of quests could be offered to the player at any one time that relate to assisting others and forming teams to solve problems. These quests could specifically target the critical business scenarios that the organisation needs new employees to grasp from day one.

Problem solving strategies

Games are inherently about problem solving. As the game is played the player experiences the consequences of their decisions. According to Adcock (2008) there are many paths in a game and whilst some lead to solutions others don't and this allows a student to engage in deep cognitive activity. In applying this to a simulated business process game the rules around the game would need to be defined around the business process so that employees achieve the outcome of the game when they follow the business process. When they don't follow the business process they don't achieve the outcome.


Although games provide 90% retention of the business process not everyone is in favour of their application to education and training. According to Duncan (in HR Focus 2007, p. 6) some people view digital games as a fad and feel that "game developers exaggerate games efficacy as a cure for all learning ills". Duncan also found that people don't like the word game. In one survey 71% of respondents wanted to replace the term game with immersive learning (HR Focus 2007). Another consideration is the cost and time in developing a game. However, Gartner have predicted that by 2011 gaming "will emerge as a critical component in a majority of corporate learning solutions" (HR Focus 2007, p5). The Gartner study found that "game based learning can significantly accelerate the transfer and application of knowledge" (HR Focus 2007, p 5).


Digital games have the potential to change employee's attitudes and behaviours in following business processes. The immersive simulated environment that a game provides allows the employee to learn the business process and then to teach it to others. This increases employees' retention of the business process from 5% to 90%. There is also the potential to expose the employee to the different roles in the process so they can experience how other people feel when they can't complete tasks, that relate to a KPI, within a given time frame. Ideally this would prompt a positive attitude change towards following business process. Digital games also represent an opportunity for the employee to understand how to respond to the critical business scenarios that arise within a business process. Some may say that digital games and their role in education and training is a passing fad however close evaluation shows that games have significant potential for education and training.


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